BIG JAY McNEELY
Many jazz purists have never forgiven Big Jay McNeely for what he did to the tenor saxophone. Born in Los Angeles in 1927, McNeely came of age on Central Avenue–the incubator that nurtured Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, and many other jazz giants–and in the mid-40s pursued conservatory-style training and played in a couple straight-ahead jazz combos. But then he remade himself as an R & B honker and hit the charts in 1949 with “Deacon’s Hop,” a churning instrumental that mixed the fervor and abandon of gospel with the carnal energy of what was then called “race” music. His stage act, in an era when plenty of dance bands were just a bunch of guys in ties sitting in straight-backed chairs, was as transgressive as his sound: he’d drop to his knees or flop onto his back, writhing and shivering like he’d been electrocuted and booting out fusillades of shrieks, squawks and bleats. Jazz oldheads and the concerned parents of white middle America were equally appalled, but despite their objections to this puerile, barbaric music, it proved incalculably influential: McNeely and his contemporaries had transformed R & B, and played as important a role in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as anybody in Chicago or Memphis. Since then McNeely has occasionally returned to his jazz roots–1999’s Central Ave. Confidential (Atomic Theory) is an amiable collection of swinging soul-jazz romps and organ-drenched ballads–but on his most recent outing, Deacon’s Hop Since 1949 (Out of Space), he’s back to business as usual, even weighing in with a vein-popping reprise of the title tune. These days he tends to stay on his feet in concert, but he still prowls through the audience, blasting in people’s faces and carrying on until everyone’s hip-deep in sweat. He seems to want his fans to feel the same excitement this sound created when it exploded onto the scene 50 years ago: lots of musicians like to leave ’em wanting more, but McNeely leaves ’em wanting a shower. This weekend he’ll be backed by a local band, Jesse Scinto & the Dignitaries; multitalented guitarist Billy Flynn will make a guest appearance. Friday and Saturday, June 1 and 2, 9:30 PM, Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lucia.